SAN ANGELO, Texas (Concho Valley Homepage) — Jack-o’-lanterns are easily one of the most recognizable parts of Halloween, with their carved faces bringing cheer to every spooky celebration. But not everyone knows that pumpkins weren’t always the de facto produce of choice when it came to making the iconic decoration.
But where did the first jack-o’-lanterns come from — and why did the switch to pumpkins happen? If you want to find out, then grab some Halloween candy and read of the tale of “Stingy Jack,” one of Ireland’s most spooktacular folktales and the (supposed) father of the jack-o’-lantern as we know it today.
A man and the Devil walk into a bar…
Though the exact time period in which Stingy Jack’s story was first told is unclear, the tale itself is a centuries-old Irish myth with several iterations that vary from telling to telling. However, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History estimates that the tale of Stingy Jack first began surfacing around the 1600s, right when indigenous peoples from the Americas began introducing pumpkins to Europe.
The tale goes that Jack, aptly nicknamed “Stingy Jack” by those who knew him, once invited Satan — yes, you read that right — to have a drink after the Devil had come to finally claim his soul.
Stingy Jack being, well, stingy, didn’t want to foot his part of the bill any more than he wanted to lose his soul. Thus, Jack made a cunning plan to trick the Devil and pay his tab at the same time. He asked Satan to transform into a coin that Jack would then use to pay for his drink. The Devil obliged, morphing himself into a coin for Jack to spend.
Jack seized his chance, putting his demonic drinking buddy in his back pocket with a silver cross while the Devil was still in (literal) mint condition. This devilish trick kept Satan from returning to his original form, trapping him until Jack removed the cross.
Jack would eventually release Satan from his pocket lint prison on one condition: He could not bother Jack at all for an entire year, and Jack’s soul could not be claimed by him whatsoever. You would think that would be the end of Jack’s deals with the Devil, right?
One year later, the Devil would come for Jack’s soul once more. This time, though, Jack would manage to convince him to climb a tree in search of a piece of fruit. Jack, ever the opportunist, carved a cross onto the tree, once again thwarting the Devil’s attempt to take his soul and trapping him in the process. Jack leveraged the situation to convince Satan to leave him alone for ten more years, securing another decade for Jack’s life on this mortal coil.
Some versions of the tale would see the Devil get tricked a few more times, with many reaching three or four tricks in total. Regardless, Jack’s clever scheming would only get him so far.
Once it finally came time for Jack to die, Jack’s soul was at an impasse: God, seeing the sinful life that Jack had led up until his passing, refused to grant him access to Heaven. Satan, on the other hand, was honoring his word to not claim Jack’s soul and holding a massive grudge for all the tricks, barring Jack from Hell as well.
With no place left to go, Jack’s soul was forced to stay in our mortal realm. Satan — perhaps getting his last laugh, perhaps not — gave Jack a single burning coal with which to light his path on dark nights. Jack placed this coal in a turnip he carved out to make an improvised lantern for himself.
The Irish, seeing the ghostly figure of Jack carrying his turnip-turned-lantern, began to call the wandering spirit “Jack of the Lantern.” This moniker would eventually be reduced to just “Jack O’Lantern,” a name that would pass on to the turnips, potatoes and other root vegetables used to make the festive lanterns that we would later call jack-o’-lanterns.
But why pumpkins?
All myths aside, jack-o’-lanterns have centuries-spanning historic origins tracing back to “Old World traditions in countries including Ireland, England and Scotland,” according to National Geographic. Many of these countries opted to use root vegetables, with turnips often being the tuber of choice for Ireland and Scotland and beets usually being the preferred produce of England.
Pumpkins, however, were not available to these countries until Europeans made contact with the Americas in 1492, leaving the iconic orange plant off the carving table. It wouldn’t be until pumpkins were diffused to other countries that they would become a viable candidate for the role of jack-o’-lantern.
Possibly helping this transition to pumpkins were the waves of Irish immigrants coming to America in the wake of the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History states that the refugees “arrived in America to celebrate Halloween and were able to find a very particular new world crop that was much larger and easier to carve than their root vegetables of home; the winter squash, the most famous of which is a pumpkin.”
Jack-o’-lanterns, then and now
The history of the jack-o’-lantern is a long and storied one, reaching several centuries into the past and pulling from the traditions and mannerisms of several cultures to plant the seeds for what jack-o’-lanterns are today.
So, the next time you’re shopping for a pumpkin to carve, maybe take a look at the rest of the produce aisle. Grab a turnip for a trip into the history of humanity, or carve your own path with an unexpected pick from the patch. After all, it’s Halloween, a time when spirits of the living and the dead collide just like the cultures those souls were once part of!
… but maybe keep a silver cross in your back pocket. Just in case.